40 years ago this week, THE watershed event of my life happened: Peter Frampton released his double-live album, Frampton Comes Alive! It changed my life…
DATELINE: Olympia, Washington, Saturday, August 27, 1976, 2pm
“Are you kidding me? That’s all you got for ’em?” Mike looked at the ten dollars I was holding like someone just shit in my hand.
“That’s ten bucks, man! Ten dollars!” I protested. “And, besides, they were G.I. Joes–what the hell do I want with G.I. Joes?”
Mike shrugged his shoulders in reluctant agreement. But then added, “I don’t know, man; they had the Kung Fu Grip! I would’a got fifteen.”
Our parents–well, our moms–were having a garage sale. And they were selling absolutely everything they owned. Or that’s how it seemed to me–you name it, my mom hauled it out of the house and into the duplex’s garage. What was weird was the fact that most of the stuff seemed to be things that we were actually still using–hell, some of it that very day.
My mom’s colander (which she used to make that day’s lunch, pasta puttanesca)?
Oh, that old thing? 25 cents!
Mike’s mom’s brand-new Polaroid Land Camera?
Seven bucks and it’s yours. Hell, I’ll even throw in a fresh box of film for the thing for a buck. Ah, fuck it–just take it. Take it!
And the worst–to this day, this stings–was the record collection; original printings of The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Doors…
Oh, those? Those are a quarter a piece–take ’em all! Please.
And she wouldn’t let me keep or buy them.
Those are your father’s records–you want those records, you go out and buy your own at the store.
None of this made any sense to me–why in the hell should I have to buy the same records that were sitting right there? But she wouldn’t budge. It was baffling.
It’s clear as a church bell now.
Now, at 52 years of age, and after a ‘garage sale’ or two of my own, it’s obvious what was happening: they were getting rid of everything and anything that had anything to do with their ex-husbands–me and Mike’s fathers. Our mothers were actually okay with taking big losses on items that had functioning and purposeful places in their households as long as their replacements had never been in the same rooms as the persons that ruined their lives. (Ours too, but Mike and I didn’t know that then.) They gleefully went out the next week and spent good money re-buying new, but not necessarily better, versions of the same things.
“So are we cutting out, or what?” Mike asked, shifting his weight back and forth from his left foot to his right, like he had to go to the bathroom. “I wanna get there before they close.”
“I gotta make sure I can go,” I said, and looked over at my mother, trying to gauge the temperature. “Hang on a second.” I knew that this was going to be a tough sell; my mother had been shilling her bad memories all morning and wasn’t going to be keen to have me split the scene, leaving her to move all of the unsold merchandise back into the house–or worse, to the dumpster.
And here’s what you need to understand about my mother. She is an Italian-born Italian woman who embodies every awful stereotype of the hot-blooded, short-tempered, shoot-first-ask-questions-later qualities (usually wrongly) attributed to Italian women. And on that hot day in the summer of 1976, her mood vacillated between hair trigger anger at the slightest provocation to giddy exuberance. Again, it all makes sense now, but, then, it was unnerving and unpredictable–I had to handle her like years-old dynamite sweating unstable nitro-glycerine. One false move, one wrong word, and our trip to the mall to spend our garage sale spoils would be blown to smithereens.
“Hey mom, Mike and I were–”
Just then, the roar of my mom’s new boyfriend’s souped up 1974 Chevy Nova drowned out both anything I was going to say and her attention to me. As soon as he got out of the car, I knew I was free to go–my very own deus ex machina. Thank you, asshole. My mom bounded over to him like the young, attractive, lithe, and newly minted single woman of the 1970s that she was back then. It’s hard to imagine now.
Mike looked at me and nodded. He knew the score. We walked to the bus stop to take us downtown.
“Peter Frampton? Really? ‘Baby, I love your way’? ” Mike sneered at me in the record store. Looking balefully at the album cover, he piled on, “Your baby’s a whore, pretty boy. Ugh, you and my sister–she loves this fucking guy.”
And I loved his fucking sister.
At twelve years old, I had just begun to suspect the notion that girls might be working as double-agents, under our noses the whole time, playing the role of agitators and irritants by day, while all the while they were working clandestinely to slowly, but surely, work their way into our bloodstreams, like a virus–or an addiction.
Mike’s sister was my first taste. She was attractive and conveniently accessible–and here’s the most dangerous part: she was nice to me. “Steve, have you heard the new Peter Frampton song? ‘Baby I love your way? I love that song,” she said one day from the doorway to her bedroom, lava lamps, velvet black light posters, a halter top hanging over a chair… it was the undiscovered country laying beyond her in that bedroom. What mysteries must be resi-
“Now this…” He jammed a copy of Kiss’s Destroyer into my chest. “Kiss, man. Kiss is where it’s at! Fuckin’ Gene Simmons!” Then he stuck out his tongue, a la Gene Simmons’ The Demon stage character.
Mike was short, pudgy, and had a face that begged for forgiveness. But, inexplicably, his sister… his sister seemed to contradict the laws of heredity–there was just no way that she could be related to him. She was seventeen, tall, and with a Marcia-Brady-meets-Cheryl-Tiegs thing going on. She was, it was resoundingly agreed upon by all concerned, a ‘fox’.
My mission accepted, I tucked the copy of Frampton Comes Alive! under my arm and headed to the register. In the words of Paul McCartney’s Live and Let Die, blasting through the record store’s speakers, I had a job to do and I was going to do it well.
My mom was gone when I got home, and, even better, the garage sale’s flotsam and jetsam was nowhere to be seen. I had the apartment to myself, it seemed, and if recent history was an accurate predictor, I would be alone until late into the morning–time to crank up the stereo.
I took out the first record out of the jacket (Frampton Comes Alive! was a Two-Record Set!), put it on my turntable, and let the needle drop with a percussive ‘thump’ as it settled into the groove. After a swell of crowd noises, what sounded like a microphone being turned on, a voice came over my speakers, echoing, bellowing, “If there ever was a musician that was an honorary member of San Francisco society… MR. PETER FRAMPTON!”
After a snare intro, loud electric guitars and a low bass note enveloped the room, then a joyous “YEAH!”, delivered as if someone was absolutely having the time of his life–and so should you.
My life was changed forever.
You see, by about the halfway mark into ‘Something’s Happening’, the first song on the album, I had forgotten all about Marcia Brady in a halter top, my mother’s boyfriend, the fact that I was absolutely shit at everything… the sound of Frampton’s guitar, his chiming, ice-clear notes sparkling, echoing off the Winterland Ballroom, in San Francisco, the ecstatic crowd… I knew, at that moment, what I was going to do. In no particular order: buy a guitar, be a rock star, be my own person.
If you’re anywhere in the range of my age, you know this album–sure, you might have been more like Mike, more Aerosmith (who, at the time, were a bunch of bad dudes, not the geriatric soft rock drag queens that they are today) than Wings, more Stones than Beatles, but, either way, you knew what this thing was about. In 1976, there was no escaping it.
For me? It opened a whole world of possibilities. I worked for the next two springs and summers mowing lawns, chopping firewood in the fall, doing any odd job I could to save up enough money to allow me to take the first steps in achieving my goal: buying an electric guitar and a couple of months of lessons from the local music shop.
Finally, on February 14, 1978–yes, Valentine’s Day–I bought it, my first axe: a Japanese copy of a ’59 Gibson Les Paul. Yes, it was cheap, no it wouldn’t stay in tune, but it was about as close to a dead-ringer for Frampton’s black beauty as I ever got. And that was good enough for me. I can’t tell you how many times I stood there with it draped over my shoulder, admiring the more powerful, confident version of me in the mirror. It was cool as hell.
Peter Frampton made me become a musician–which opened me up to working in a variety of crafts and disciplines throughout my life. (I’m an okay writer, for example, a decent film and TV editor, a serviceable painter, and not too bad of a cook–I haven’t poisoned anyone yet.) Being a musician showed me that the more you put into something, the more you get out of it–a lesson that works across all disciplines and curricula of life, I’ve found. But, more important, it allowed me to be the one thing no one else could be or tell me to be: Me.
Frampton Comes Alive!, if you’ll pardon the hamfisted allusion, showed me the way…